The number of newly enrolled freshmen students at the University of Montana grew 2 percent this year, signaling a positive reversal in what had been a steady decline in recent years.
However, growth in the freshman class wasn’t enough to compensate for last year’s larger graduating class, resulting in a 5.5 percent drop in the school’s undergraduate headcount.
The preliminary fall enrollment headcount stands at 11,865 students.
“Stabilizing the incoming freshman class is the critical first step to reversing the overall enrollment decline,” said Tom Crady, vice president of enrollment and student affairs. “It indicates that the new strategies we’re deploying are beginning to yield more students.”
Since arriving on campus last year, Crady has implemented a number of policy changes and strategies intended to reverse the school’s past enrollment trends.
They’ve included making earlier contact with prospective students and providing micro-scholarships to students starting their freshman year of high school. UM is also developing new recruiting markets and working to improve retention rates.
“(Crady) has said all along that the most important and critical first step in stabilizing and ultimately growing enrollment is to stop the decline of incoming freshmen,” said Paula Short, vice president of communications. “He feels it’s an important metric to begin that stablization.”
The decrease in overall student enrollment stems in part from last year’s graduating class, which saw the university confer more than 3,000 degrees. This year’s incoming class was smaller than that, though Short said the overall numbers are expected to stabilize and begin growing in the years ahead.
“We think this spring is the last of those big classes to work through the system,” said Short. “Then you’ve got some smaller classes and we hope to grow bigger classes again. It’s not year to year, it’s compounding over four to five years.”
Figures released on Wednesday also show a 10-percent increase in graduate students this fall. When added to the school’s total enrollment, the overall headcount is down just 4.5 percent, a figure that was included in the school’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget.
But despite the improved enrollment outlook, Rosi Keller, the university’s interim vice president of administration and finance, said budgetary concerns remain. They could be amplified by proposed cuts to the University System as the state looks to balance its budget.
“We have encouraging enrollment numbers, but we need to understand the mix of resident and nonresident, the full-time students, and other factors that will ultimately determine our tuition revenue,” Keller said. “It will be a little later in the term before we have final revenue numbers.”
Across the river at Missoula College, the headcount fell by 317 students – a decline of 15 percent.
School officials attributed the drop to changes in dual enrollment. Only 280 high school students were taking college courses at Missoula College this year compared to 583 the year before.
“If dual enrollment would have stayed even with last year, Missoula College would have been down less than 1 percent,” Crady said. “The reason for the decline in dual enrollment is unclear, but it may be due to increased interest in the International Baccalaureate Program, similar to dual enrollment, which also is recognized by UM.”
School officials said they were pleased by growth in both Native American and first-generation students. They attributed the increase to personal attention and the service of faculty and staff.
“They’re an important demographic for us to serve for a variety of reasons,” said Short. “They underscore UM’s commitment. We very much want them on campus. We want first generation students to have the opportunity. To be up in those key areas is something we’re happy about.”